Why the GOP should fight a war on ‘poverty’ not ‘inequality’

The war on poverty and the war on income inequality mean very different things to the Republican base.

The clear distinction offers clues about the way the GOP will sound on this front with Democrats eager to make the growing gap between the rich and poor a central theme of the 2014 midterm elections.

Image via Pew Research Center.
Image via Pew Research Center.

A majority of Republicans (64 percent) say the government should take at least some action to reduce poverty in the United States, according to a new Pew Research Center-USA Today survey. That includes more than one in four (27 percent) who say the government should do a lot.

But when it comes to how much the government should do to shrink the gap between the rich and the poor, we see a very different picture. Only 45 percent of Republicans say they support at least some action.

By comparison, Democrats see no real distinction. More than nine in ten want to see at least some government effort on both fronts. Independents are more likely to support action on poverty than inequality, but not by as wide a margin as Republicans.

The findings come as Democrats are gearing up to make the income gap a central focus of their midterm campaign push. President Obama will use his State of the Union address next week to unveil specific proposals. Democratic officials have already been ramping up their push for a minimum wage increase.

All of which raises the question: How will Republicans counter? They can't unveil policies that alienate their base. Nor can they afford to be defined as the party of division and exclusion, a notion Mitt Romney's "47 percent" comment stoked heavily in 2012.

The answer lies in how they talk about the issue. And based on the Pew poll findings, there is a bigger GOP appetite for talking about policies to address "poverty"' rather than "inequality."

If they present it in that way, Republicans don't have to sacrifice base supporters skeptical of government intervention and partial to an "up by your bootstraps" approach. Nor do they have to sacrifice moderates who want to see government action.

We're already starting to see some of this.

"Yes, the cashier at a fast food chain makes less money than the CEO of the company," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in a recent speech about poverty. "But the problem we face is not simply the difference and the gap in pay between them, but rather that too many of those cashiers are stuck in the same job for years on end, unable to find one that pays better. And it is this lack of mobility — not just income inequality — that we should be focused on." Rubio championed a plan to consolidate federal dollars for anti-poverty programs into one agency.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has pushed school choice as "the surest way to break this vicious cycle of poverty, and we must act fast before it is too late for too many."

Yes, the distinction between poverty and inequality may be a subtle one — or even a distinction without a difference. But politics is about fine tuning a message just right.

And if Republicans are smart, they won't waste their opportunity.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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